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Social Media and Emergencies

publication date: Jul 23, 2013
author/source: Tara Coomans

Social Media and Emergencies

Social Media

By Tara Coomans,

Some thoughts about social media during emergencies and diasters

I’ve come out of my stupor from last night’s evacuation from my home due to a tsunami alert in my backyard: the pacific ocean surrounding Hawaii. And now, my attention turns to the East Coast as Hurricane Sandy bears down and effects half the country. Today I’m enjoying what I’ve tagged as a “tsunami free Sunday” and I’ve had time to think about last night’s activities.

Since I was evacuated last night, as I listened to tsunami sirens wail, huddled in my car with blankets, pillows, dog, husband and a battery charger for phone and Ipad, the glow coming off my personal devices was my outside connection with the world. The feeling of helplessness is overwhelming; social media kept me connected and as importantly let people know I was safe. I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that the tsunami sirens didn’t tell me as much as Twitter did. Is Twitter today’s warning siren? I was reliant exclusively on Twitter (mostly), Facebook and my car radio to get updates for the tsunami. I wasn’t alone. Evacuees throughout the state were convening online and offline. The radio station I was listening to constantly referenced Twitter, as did the TV station before I left my house. At one point, waiting for the all-clear, when a collective sigh swept throughout the state, Twitter WAS the news.

So now that social media is officially part of emergencies, some thoughts and suggestions about social media use during large scale emergencies:

Hashtag coordination: local, state, federal agencies should coordinate around a single hashtag and alert news outlets to the hashtag. If a community-based hashtag already exists as is the case with #hitsunami, then consider using that hashtag. This very simple step would increase ability to follow accurate sources of a story. This should just be part of emergency planning. In the case of last night, all national news agencies with exception of CNN were asleep at the wheel, but even they weren’t using the local hashtag. Meanwhile the #tsunami hashtag was infiltrated with spam. Keeping it clean with a localized hashtag of #hitsunami really helped.

Utility companies need to get in on the action: Regardless of what type of utility, TV, Gas, Electricity, Telecommunications, updates on preparation and their own emergency steps should be incorporated as well. These companies already coordinate with officials on emergency planning, so this should be part of the plan. Many companies are already doing this, but here in my backyard, our own utility companies were conspicuously absent. A couple of years ago, Nashville Electric won accolades for their use of social media during flooding when thousands of people were without power for an extended period of time. I know that integrating social media comes with its challenges and I know its currently being discussed, but examples like Nashville Electric show what’s possible with committment. However, here in Hawaii, we’ve had 3 major tsunami evacuations in as many years and our own electric and gas and telecommunications companies remain silent. What is it going to take?

City, State and Federal Agencies should incorporate public training: Last year I participated in CERT (Citizens Emergency Response Training). I was shocked to see that there was no training built into the class about using social media during a diaster. Boots on the ground make all the difference in a real emergency when first responders are overwhelmed and need to prioritize. Twitter training should be incorporated into CERT training and response training.

Listening: And of course, all of this could have been at least partially resolved if response agencies and news agencies were LISTENING to the discussion as much as they were pushing information. In the case of a diaster, when phone lines are jammed, sometimes Twitter is the only way to get information out. Response agencies really should be incorporating listening to the tweet stream and public Facebook posts into their process. This will help with identifying hotspots of trouble and help prioritize. Bing’s Twitter maps app is a great visual aid for this. If agencies were listening, they also probably would have seen the hashtags in play and communication could be streamlined.

Hotels, Airlines Should Participate: As soon as the warning was announced last night, I got several text messages from people visiting Hawaii asking for advice. I advised them to listen to the hotel staff, and watch the tweet stream and told them to #thinkcalmthoughts as my colleague Roxanne Darling tweets during these times. But the rest of the world is doubtless wondering about what’s happening to the people whose home this isn’t. And those same people maybe wondering what just happened to their travel plans (flying out tonight, anyone?). It wouldn’t be so hard for these organizations to have regular updates on their planning, activities and information. Starwood Hawaii did this all night last night, but today its pretty silent, and yet beaches still aren’t safe due to strange currents caused by tsunamis. Today would be a great day to remind people what other activities are available in Hawaii besides the beaches. Another thing that hotels and travel companies should do, is advise visitors to accept local Nixel updates to their smart phones. At the bare minimum, this would keep visitors alerted who aren’t using social media. I’m still getting Nixel updates today, several of which are relevant to those beaches and would be of interest to visitors.

There is always this argument that not everyone is on social media, but that argument is increasingly losing validity. Last night’s Twitter stream was filled with occasional users who knew exactly where to go for information. I know lots of government agencies are doing social media diaster training and I applaud this, but it really is taking far too long to implement. The time to implement is before a diaster. To engage a committed audience before they are needed. Incorporating social media will take a concentrated, coordinated, planned effort. And that effort should be a considerable priority. Social media isn’t a frivolous game when it comes to emergencies – its an imperative tool.

Tell me – were you using social media during the diaster weekend of Hurricane Sandy and Hawaii Tsunami?

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